Heading into their first match of the 2020 Mitre 10 Cup most of the talk centred on the Makos supercharged back division and the capers they were expected to cut.
However, it was the Tasman forwards who paved the way for their 41-24 victory over Counties Manukau on Saturday evening.
They opened their account with two clinical tries to hooker Andrew Makalio, both scored from five metre lineout drives – not pretty, but pretty effective.
Later, as the Mako slowly but surely tightened their grip on the game, they scored twice more thorough the forwards, Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta and Shannon Frizell dotting down.
Centre Leicester Fainga’anuku chipped in with a long-range effort, but that was just the icing on a cake well and truly baked by the men up front.
The presence of All Blacks Frizell and prop Tyrel Lomax can’t be underestimated, but it was very much a 13-man effort up front.
Lock had been pinpointed as a potential problem area for the Mako, given the absence of outstanding middle-rowers Quinten Strange and Pari Pari Parkinson but the engine room roles were admirably filled by the ever-reliable Alex Ainley and man-of-the-match Cirtikidaveta.
Andrew Goodman, Mako co-head coach, was heartened by the efforts of his big men.
“Te Ahiwaru has been around our environment for three years now. We have been pushing him hard in training and he was outstanding today, getting through 80 minutes of work he can be really proud of.
“All the locks today put their hands up, Alex was awesome with his leadership. He was always just going to have 40 [minutes], then young Moni Ngakuru came on at halftime, got some lineout ball and got into the rhythm of the game, which was cool.”
Goodman also praised the efforts of livewire halfback Finlay Christie, winger Mark Telea and replacement Fetuli Paea, suggesting “the impact he made when he came on was a bit of a game-changer”.
A strength of the Makos previous campaign has been front row depth off the bench and, despite the absence of such stalwarts as Wyatt Crockett and Tim Perry, Goodman felt they again got full value from his low numbers.
“Isi Tu’ungafasi was up against Nepo Laulala at the start and he did a really good job in his first game for us, then two guys who have played club footy all year, Kershawl Sykes-Martin and Sam Matenga, both played well and will get better and better each week. We are happy with the depth we have got there.”
However, of concern to the Mako brains trust will be the fact Counties Manukau were able to score three tries from close range. But, as they have shown in recent times, they will react to that potential weakness and adjust their defence accordingly.
Goodman said his side took some time to get into the game but adapted and reaped the rewards.
“Counties were a much-improved team from last year, they set a really good tempo which we didn’t quite match at the start. Their set piece caught us out a couple of times.
“It was anyone’s game at halftime, but we just talked about the need for us to look after the ball better and build the phases. We thought that if we could string five or six [phases] together they would have some tired defenders and we could take advantage of that.
“Our contestable kicks also worked well when it came to putting pressure on.”
As an opening hit-out, with little time together and seven players new to the Mako involved, there was a lot to like about the Mako performance in Pukekohe.
Next up for the defending premiership champs is a date with Northland in Blenheim on Friday night. The Taniwha always turn up with proud, gritty performances but may be lacking in horsepower against a side with attacking potential all over the paddock.
Tasman 41 (Makalio 2, Cirikidaveta, Faingaanuku, Frizell tries, Hunt 5 cons, 2 pens) Counties Manukau 24 (Leavasa, Papali’I, Taulani tries, Kerr 3 cons, 1 pen)
Meanwhile, at Lansdowne Park on Saturday the Tasman women’s team opened their Farah Palmer Cup campaign with a 62-0 loss to Wellington Pride.
The northerners, a division one side, led 36-0 at halftime. It was a rude awakening for the Mako, who have previously played in the second division section.
Coach Mel Bosman said, “now they all know what division one is all about. It was a bit of a shock to the system for some, but they will learn from it and get better.”
Replacement fullback Bethan Manners was player of the day, while flankers Elisha Godsiff and Tamara Silcock, plus hooker Steph Mitchell got special mentions.
On Saturday they play Manawatu in Palmerston North with an 11.35am kick off.